Designated Survivor sat on my must-watch list for months. When I finally started watching it, I became so hooked that I had a hard time stopping. Between the addictive story-lines, and my willingness to binge hours of television day and night, I breezed through the first season like a hot knife through butter. After all, I am the queen of “one more episode” and lack of sleep. In-fact, I watched so many episodes of this show in a row that I experienced several dreams of myself walking the White House hallways while seriously discussing my daily agenda.
I’m really enjoying Designated Survivor, the series is very well cast, as I can not imagine anyone but Kiefer Sutherland carrying this role. My first thought when starting this series was, um agent Jack Bauer (24) is now president!? Yep, and he is perfectly cast, with no sign of a ticking clock or reminding us that “Events occur in real time”. The entire cast truly brings their A game, and works with some pretty impressive chemistry. I am now caught up to current episodes, and enjoying how each character has grown into their own. As we have now moved into season two, the show has really shook things up. The writers have done a great job at moving past the surprised and unsure feelings of how these people became our acting government, and given them the muscle they need to get the job done. Which is a good thing, because in this dramatic, crises filled world, they are going to need it.
ABOUT THE SERIES
In Season Two of the hit ABC drama “Designated Survivor,” Kiefer Sutherland returns as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union.
Now, one year later, President Kirkman finds his feet as commander in chief as he closes the ring on the terrorists who destroyed the Capitol and manages the daily flow of crises inside the West Wing. He’ll take on some of the world’s most urgent and controversial matters with the help of his aides, including three new series regulars: offbeat but brilliant political director Lyor Boone; the new resident legal eagle, White House Counsel Kendra Daynes; and M1-6 operative Damian Renneett who forms an unlikely alliance with FBI agent Hannah Wells and the White House.
During my recent visit to L.A. we had the opportunity to meet with Co-Executive Producer/writer Jessica Grasl and via video chat Italia Ricci who stars as Emily Rhodes, Secretary Tom Kirkman’s chief of staff on the show.
Jessica Grasl wrote the “Two Ships” episode that aired on 11/1/17, she has worked in television production for fourteen years and as a writer since 2008. Her credits include Leverage (TNT), Hawaii Five-0 (CBS), White Collar (USA), Proof (TNT), The Player (NBC), and Shades of Blue (NBC).
Recently Italia Ricci had a recurring role on the CW series “Supergirl,” playing villain Siobhan Smythe – otherwise known as Silver Banshee. Ricci starred on ABC Family’s (now Freeform) “Chasing Life,” where she played the lead role of April, a twenty-something smart and quick-witted aspiring journalist, who is trying to work her way up the ladder at a Boston newspaper by trying to impress her hard-nosed editor. Ricci’s additional television roles include guest-starring on “CSI: Las Vegas,” “House,” “Greek” and “How I Met Your Mother.” She has also appeared as Chase Ravenwood on Disney XD’s original series “Aaron Stone,” Sasha on the Comedy Central series “Secret Girlfriend” and as Maggie on the hit Cartoon Network live-action series “Unnatural History.”
Ricci’s film credits include playing Samantha in the college comedy “Resident Advisor.” In 2014 she played an early love interest for title character Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the fall comedy feature “Don Jon,” and was seen in the lead role of Allison in the 2014 Sony thriller “The Remaining,” a film that follows a group of friends trying to survive the end of the world according to the Bible, written and directed by Casey La Scala. Ricci’s first film role happened when a friend asked her to be an extra with him on the movie “American Pie Presents: Naked Mile.” It was during the filming of “Naked Mile” that Ricci was noticed which led her being cast in the next “American Pie” movie, entitled “American Pie Presents: Beta House.” Ricci began her career in entertainment at the age of nine, performing in numerous local theatre productions in her native Ontario, Canada. Ricci is involved with the non profits Stand Up To Cancer, where she serves as an ambassador, and she volunteers with American Cancer Society (ACS), Children’s Hospital L.A. (CHLA), and Stupid Cancer.
Below is just a few of the highlights from our conversation. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed my time with these two very talented women.
Q: I have a question about storyboarding. What does your storyboarding process look like? Is it whiteboards, is it sticky notes; what is that creative process?
JG: Yes, our process, and it changes for every show, but for Designated Survivor, it involves a ton of whiteboards, and a copious amount of markers and cleaner fluid. Basically what we do is we start by writing things up on whiteboards and then once you get down to the nitty gritty we put things on big index cards and you then find the story. So for example, if we’re working in Emily’s story, Emily would probably have her own color. If we’re doing Hannah and Damian’s story, that would have its own color. So you can look at the board and track them – we haven’t seen blue in a while and there’s a ton of green, so we need to break that up. Then the part of the process that I’m at with my episode is you take these parts down off the board, and you have a big stack of them, and then you try to make it make sense on an actual document, which is the really hard part. It goes from marker boards, to index cards, to computers, but I’ve also worked on shows where you have magnets, which is really cool, so you can move the magnets around and shift things around, as opposed to erasing and rewriting. So every show has a little bit of a different process but all involves a lot of writing, and erasing, and rewriting, so it gets into your brain.
Q: How hard is it to keep those stories cohesive because each episode has its own storyline, but it all has to fit in?
JG: Yeah, just as I was coming over here today, I was off doing my prep, but the train is moving forward on somebody else’s episode. So just on my way over here, one of the writers was texting me and was like, wait, so in your episode, where do we leave off with this character, and do we establish this? And I’m like, no, we don’t. I think we’re setting that up in the next episode, and I mean, it’s a puzzle, and the challenge is that if something changes in episode fourteen, it affects what’s happening in episode fifteen and sixteen.
Q: Is there ever a point where it too much drama?
JG: I think that the challenge is probably more, to make the drama compelling rather than complicated, and I think what challenges the storytellers is that we have six acts to tell in an X amount of time, you have to, have a certain amount of content, you need to have the story- it has to keep moving. And what we always have to be aware of is how many times are we sort of twisting things, and is that intriguing, or does that just become confusing, so… I mean, the first episode is the Capitol blew up so, you get to make big moves, and you get make big choices, and you almost can’t go too dramatic. Very rarely does it feel like that’s a little bit too big, you know. In the show where the entire government was wiped out in the first ten minutes, we had a lot of room to play, so that’s fun, that’s fun.
Q: How did you as writers know what to write? It’s like you are right there in the White House.
JG: Luckily we do have- we have really good consultants. We always have somebody on our staff who used to work in the White House, and so I knock on his door all the time, and I’m like, what do you call this? Or what would you do about this and, we have consultants on each of the episodes
Q: I have a question for Italia. So the showrunners make a huge, beautiful story for you, and they work like crazy. How much time do you have before you actually film the episode?
IR : If we’re lucky, we’ll get the script maybe three days before we search to the end, but there will be other days where I’ll get it and have to learn it ten minutes before.
Q: How do you feel working in this environment when there are tweaks; when there are changes all the time? Do you love it, or is it stressful?
IR: My literal worst nightmare, but you just sort of develop this muscle that is sort of you know, fear and panic and that’s great because it keeps you on your toes, and the writing is usually for the better, so it’s great in that aspect. But, your performance, you feel like you haven’t really been given the time to prepare, so you feel like, if only I had a couple more days, but it happens like that on every show- that’s the struggle on television, it all has to happen so quickly.
Q: First of all, I just wanted to say, oh my gosh, I love your Tweets, whatever you’re Tweeting about- tacos, and pizza, I’m all that’s my girl.
I love that you play the Chief of Staff and, you’re in a position of power as a woman. So what does that mean to you, and what do you want to share with other women and girls who watch- because I watch this show with my daughters. What is that you want to portray with your character?
IR: I hope that she is able to portray that women are just as smart, just as strong, and just as tough and present, and capable as a man in that world, if not better. I think I’m a better Chief of Staff than Aaron was, but you know, I’m a little biased. I like the idea of saying, hey, we can do it, too, and we can wear killer heels while we do it, I really enjoy being able to have that sort of power, especially since she didn’t think she was ready for it, and then push your own limits and, really see what potential you don’t even know that you have. So I’ve really enjoyed that part about Emily.
Q: How similar are you or what personally traits do you share with your character on the show?
IR: I think sort of – I seem always to get lucky enough to play very, confident, smart ambitious women that I kind of feel like if I wasn’t an actor, I would hopefully have been. I want to relate to that, I would like to think that that’s what I would be like if in an alternate universe, but I feel like mostly I relate to a little bit of her stubbornness- okay, a lot of her stubbornness.
Q: In writing a political drama, how do you balance the politics in the drama without making it too political?
JG: That’s a good question. I think that the Kirkman White House lives in a different universe. Obviously it started from a very unique place which, God forbid, our actual U.S. history has never experienced, the destruction of the entire seat of government. I think it’s been really exciting to sort of live in a space that feels so different from real world.
I mean, regardless of who’s in the White House, it’s very different from Tom Kirkman being in the White House. This is something we’ve really gotten to explore a lot this year because we’ve sort moved past the crisis point and the rubble, if you will, and now it’s about Kirkman and his team, and he’s in administration moving the country forward into Kirkman’s vision. So really, as writers, that’s the world that we live in.
THIS WEEK ON DESIGNATED SURVIVOR
“Family Ties” – When a Turkish activist ignites protests in the U.S., Turkey’s president demands his extradition while the first family unknowingly finds themselves in the center of a battle that could threaten Leo’s future, on ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” airing WEDNESDAY, NOV. 15 (10:00—11:00 p.m. EST).
““Family Ties” was written by Pierluigi D. Cothran and directed by Milan Cheylov.Survivor” airs on Wednesdays at 10|9c on ABC. Episodes are also available via streaming and on demand.
“Designated Survivor” stars Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, Natascha McElhone as Alex Kirkman, Paulo Costanzo as Lyor Boone, Adan Canto as Aaron Shore, Italia Ricci as Emily Rhodes, LaMonica Garrett as Mike Ritter, Zoe McLellan as Kendra Daynes, Ben Lawson as Damian Rennett Kal Penn as Seth Wright and Maggie Q as Hannah Wells.
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Disclosure: Travel, lodging, events, and meals during this trip were provided courtesy of Disney/Pixar, Disney Studios, & ABC Network. All opinions expressed are still honest and my own.